Good News, Bad News in Trump’s International Affairs Budget

by Diana Ohlbaum

Expert reviews of President Trump’s proposed budget for international affairs have been almost uniformly negative—and for good reason. Severe and disproportionate cuts for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would undermine U.S. national security. Skimping on security protections for diplomats and development professionals serving overseas would pave the way for what Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has called “a lot of Benghazis.” Massive reductions in humanitarian aid would leave millions of refugees and displaced people without sufficient food, water, medicine, and protection. The renunciation of U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions will almost certainly set back coordinated efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality, end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, limit global warming, and prevent the spread of armed violence and weapons of mass destruction.

To politicos in Washington, the budget may be just numbers on paper. But to real people around the world, it will have life-or-death consequences. An estimated 1 million people would die just as a result of the proposed cuts to AIDS programs.

Yet alongside these immoral, reckless, and misguided cuts, the administration’s foreign affairs budget contains a few sound and reasonable reforms. While recognizing that each piece of good news is accompanied by a weightier piece of bad news, the internationalist community should at least acknowledge the areas in which the Trump budget adheres to aid effectiveness principles.

Good News: Instead of making across-the-board cuts, which would have been the easy choice, the Trump budget applies selectivity and focus. In 2010, President Obama pledged in his Global Development Policy that the U.S. government would “be more selective about where and in which sectors it works”—a promise that was mostly honored in the breach. A 2012 bipartisan report by John Norris and Connie Veillette — leaders in the foreign aid reform movement—specifically called for working in fewer countries and eliminating small, expensive-to-operate or peripheral-interest country programs. Several of the countries that the Trump budget drastically reduces or zeroes out entirely— including Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Timor Leste, Jamaica, and Paraguay—were examples that Norris and Veillette cited. Trump’s rejection of ineffective and controversial regime-change programs in Cuba took political courage, even though Congress is likely to reinsert the money.

Bad News: Many of the cuts were made for ideological reasons that are not supported by evidence of waste, inefficiency, or poor performance. Family planning programs were completely eliminated, even though unintended pregnancy is a significant cause of maternal mortality, and family planning has been documented to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, lower the risk of infant mortality, and reduce the number of abortions. Funding for all climate-change programs was withdrawn even though helping developing countries to pursue low-carbon growth and build resilience to weather volatility is in U.S. self-interest. Ending support for international programs such as UNICEF and peacekeeping operations flies in the face of performance reviews and evaluations showing their cost-effectiveness and real-world value.

Good News: Inefficient food aid programs were eliminated. The Trump budget proposes to end funding for P.L. 480 Title II food aid and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program, which have been the subject of critical reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Although these programs historically have played an important role in stemming global hunger, the money could be better spent by using cash or vouchers and purchasing commodities locally.

Bad News: Instead of shifting the money to more efficient methods of addressing hunger and malnutrition, the Trump budget would slash overall funding for humanitarian assistance by 44%–while 20 million people in four countries face famine and starvation, and an unprecedented 65 million people have been displaced by war and persecution.

Good News: The Trump budget promotes greater flexibility in foreign aid by merging and streamlining accounts. The proliferation of aid spigots, each with its own rules and restrictions, causes unnecessary complications and delays in spending.

Bad News: Giving the State Department control over all development assistance increases the risk that aid will become transactional, used to achieve short-term U.S. diplomatic and political aims rather than to foster the partner country’s long-term socio-economic transformation. To make matters worse, budget and program transparency would be eroded through diminished monitoring and evaluation and the repeal of numerous reporting requirements.

Good News: Personnel expenses were not cut disproportionately. To be sure, funding for diplomatic and consular programs and USAID operations was heavily trimmed, but these reductions were only in the range of 8-10%, as compared to program cuts of 30-50% in most areas.

Bad News: Reorganization is still coming. Alongside the draft plan each U.S. government agency must submit to the White House by June 30 for workforce reductions and organizational restructuring, the State Department is conducting its own review of the foreign affairs agencies, with an eye toward consolidation. This could easily result in additional mission closures and reductions-in-force.

Good News: Security assistance was not spared the budget ax. Foreign Military Financing would receive $1 billion less in 2018 than 2017 (an 18% cut) and counter-narcotics funding is reduced by 28%.

Bad news: The dysfunctional International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, which has trained foreign torturers and rapists and has no system for tracking results, was cut far less than any other security assistance program. Furthermore, Trump’s budget sets the stage for shifting control of these programs to the Pentagon, with fewer policy restrictions and less civilian oversight.

Good News: Congress is unlikely to go along with many of the cuts. Republicans are pushing back against the Trump budget plan, which both John McCain (R-AZ) and John Cornyn (R-TX) called “dead on arrival.”.

Bad news: Steep cuts in domestic safety-net and anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, child health insurance, affordable housing, job training, and federal student loans, are likely to be a higher priority for Democrats than foreign aid. It will be difficult, and rightly so, to restore funds for international affairs if domestic spending is not also increased.

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum